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Handheld devices in-store: Consumer or Shop Assistant, who will hold the upper hand?

Who will benefit most from our online world in the shopping centres of 2014? Will it be the connected buyers of tomorrow with the latest super-charged smartphones and tablets or will it be the savvy shop assistants with handheld digital databases geared to meet the demands and delivery needs of shoppers?

Since the unveiling of Apple’s App Store in 2008 – there are over 900,000 apps available today, not including ones for Windows, Android and BlackBerry – thousands  of retailers have set up shopping apps, and they’re now one of the most popular categories of downloads. But when consumers open a smartphone shopping app for the first time, it begs the question: do I even need to go to the shops in the first place? The reality is that apps are used most commonly at home, work and in transit but consumers are steadily adopting ‘showrooming’ practices as mobile networks and Wi-Fi become more available. In fact BT’s Autonomous Customer research earlier this year showed that 54% of 16-34 year olds had used their smartphone to scan products in store to check the best price online.

We asked some young consumers to try out a range of retailers’ apps and sent them on a shopping expedition. Here’s what they found:

Getting online – Getting access to shopping centre Wi-fi was not that straightforward: first, choosing the right network created some confusion and second, some providers wanted personal data and wasting one minute of shopping time some shoppers felt was not worth it. Thirdly, none of the Wi-Fi offerings worked for the whole of the shopping trip, from one store to another. Mobile coverage was hit and miss in-store.

Store location As long as 3G or Wi-Fi was available, the location services tended to be accurate. A list would appear showing the closest stores to their current location, including the exact address as well as the opening times. Most apps showed the retailers’ locations on a map. One well known retailer stated our shoppers were at least 0.5 miles away from the store when in fact they were standing in it.

Scanners – Most shopping apps had a scanner for barcodes found on products in order to access more information. This had a variety of uses, but only a few enabled them to see pictures and details and then buy online – very useful for out of stocks. The scanner was able to recognise the in-store price reductions being promoted on certain products, and in some cases it gave an online discount simply for using the app. But prices online didn’t always match up with those shown on items.

Ease of use – The retailers’ apps being tested generally had a smooth interface, although some were easier and faster to use than others: John Lewis stood out with its minimalist design meaning that our shoppers could find what they were looking for quickly and efficiently.

There were a few issues with bugs and some apps would crash consistently on iPhones. For example, this happened when trying to add clothing to an online basket, making one app impossible to use.

Rather than openly using apps in store, most consumers seem to be looking at their phones in an adjacent coffee shop or while standing in the walkway. Perhaps this will change, in the same way that contactless payments are now becoming more widely used.

The Apple App gave the best information as consumers entered their store – queue time for assistants or the genius bar. Of course, Apple staff have used handhelds themselves for at least 4 years, enabling assistants to take control of the shopping interaction and provide some memorable shopping experiences to consumers.  Finding stock, providing product information, making connections with other suppliers and taking the cash are capabilities that shop assistance offer. Nearly all consumers (97% according to the Autonomous Customer research) say that out of stocks whilst shopping in store should be easily ordered for home delivery, etc. But what about directions, training and a knowledge base for shop assistants? Or demonstrations?

How will interactions in-store work when both consumer and assistant have handheld devices:

Price comparison – Will shop assistants be allowed to negotiate on price there and then, factoring in the convenience of being able to buy immediately rather than waiting for delivery or going elsewhere?

Stock queries – Will consumers be given the same access as shop assistants to stock information: ‘I’m sorry but it says here there IS one out the back, if you’ll just look a little harder’?

The conversation – Will the conversation about the product’s strengths and fallibilities be better because it is informed by online knowledge (of the store but also the web)?

Video or text – Will content management strategies have to change to tailor to the store type and area?

In a sector which values innovation these applications of handheld devices in store make a compelling business case. And in an online world where many argue the smartphone will change the balance of power between consumers and stores, handhelds might just help stores re-dress the balance.

Posted by Marcus Hickman, Consumer Director, Davies Hickman Partners

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